Unluckiest Guy Alive.

This month marks 15 years since the car accident, and it feels like a suitable time to revisit this blog with an update. I’m on the ferry heading to Vancouver from Victoria where Rox and I have been living for a couple years. The ferry is strangely empty and it’s almost spooky how quiet it is. It’s mid-day but the ocean and the sky are different shades of the same grey. I wonder if we inadvertently boarded a ghost ship, and if so, I hope the usual boarding announcements will be made by Captain Jack Sparrow, or at least someone who sounds like him.

It’s something of a loosely held tradition to go see my old stomping grounds each year to chat with the folks working in the Vancouver General Hospital Intensive Care and Trauma Special Care Units. Recently I’ve started bringing my car accident/hospital stay photo album to help them connect the dots of who I am now and which guy I was then. This year I’m also equipped with six dozen black Sonix Gel pens, the clicky kind, you know, because pen lids are a hassle and tend to go missing.  In the ICU, good pens are cash money and today I’m making it rain.

Hospitals, to me, are like Club Med, an all-inclusive facility where everyday worries fade away, the  room service is impeccable, and all you do is lay around and joke with the staff.  My uncommon affinity for medical care facilities was reaffirmed three weeks ago at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. I was scheduled to have a malignant melanoma removed and a subsequent skin graft to close things up again. Melanomas are a type of cancer, and mine had been growing for five years. When the initial biopsy results returned positive for a superficial spreading melanoma, my first response was, “Really? That’s what we’re doing now? Of all the dumb luck…” My mind started tallying up the challenges I’ve had to endure, hitting me with the highlights: brain-damage, divorce, cancer. Life was constant maintenance work before cancer, and now I have to deal with that too?

Sometimes the fifteen years since the car accident feels like a fifteen-year streak of bad luck. It’s as if the car-accident released the floodwaters of stress, trauma, and pain into the canyon of my life. What was an adventurous journey on a steady current became a fight for survival down treacherous rapids. And sometimes I wish it would just let up, you know? Brain-damage, divorce, AND cancer? Enough, already.

The other day, as I was mulling over this latest tough break, a totally contradictory thought flashed in my mind – what if I’m actually one incredibly lucky sonofabitch? Well, ok, I thought, let’s see where this goes.

Okay, the first one, the car accident, is an easy one. The doctor’s gave me a 1 in 10 chance of survival, remember? There was a ninety percent chance I would die – ninety percent!! If I were a betting man, I’d go with the ninety percent odds, take my money, and run. But I’m not a betting man, I’m a lucky man, and beating the odds of survival is just the beginning.

The complexities of the brain mean a staggering variety of impairments can occur when the brain is injured. The damage to my brain was a severe amount, first from the impact of the truck hitting my side of the car, and later from my brain’s oxygen supply being cut off through three minutes of cardiac arrest. Yet my level of functioning baffled doctors early on and continues to today. I’ve become increasingly efficient at working around the biggest obstacles and even overcoming others. That kind of trajectory in recovery doesn’t happen everyday, but it happened to me.

Next, divorces are painful and difficult to go through, that’s a given, yet it doesn’t take much to see that mine was handled pretty well. Despite the inevitable challenges that arise in divorce, I know that care was taken to ensure that I was not unnecessarily burdened. We don’t chat or email often, but when we do there is still care and compassion. Some say amicable divorces are a myth, but my luck is mythical too.

Finally, of the four types of melanoma, superficial spreading melanoma is the most common and least invasive. In that sense, it’s not surprising that despite growing for five years, the tumour hadn’t appeared to have invaded my lymphatic system (even so, the sentinel node, the one closest to the melanoma, was removed along with the next two as a precaution). What is lucky about this whole experience is that, because of the pre-op paper work and post-op follow-ups, I needed a family doctor. The walk-in clinic doctor I usually see asked a colleague and she agreed to be my doctor. Do you know how hard it is to get a family doctor in Victoria right now? The odds aren’t great, I’ll tell you that.

In sum, I survive a car accident when I should have been written off along with my car, my brain is rewriting the textbooks (or at least this blog) on what brain damage means, the long-term effects of my divorce are negligible, I get the good kind of melanoma, and no longer have to wait at walk-in clinics.

Try finding someone who catches those kind of breaks. Good Luck.




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Epilogue: From Happy Ending to Fresh Start

I was surprised when I realized this, so it’s understandable that some of you will be as well, but this is the the end of TheBrainDamageDiaries.

In response to a challenge laid out by a fellow literary/creative acquaintance, I set out on February 14, 2011, to blog weekly for a year. The idea was that out of fifty-two blog posts, there should be at least one good one, something that could pass as an example of good work. This is my seventy-third post so it stands to reason that there should be one-and-a-half good posts in here somewhere.

Flipping through TheBrainDamageDiaries, like any diary, is a surreal yet comforting exercise. When I started, I had no idea what to record, and how to best present it (bold type was a good call, right?). Writing, at the time, was extremely labour-intensive, and I would set aside whole days for crafting a single blog. Eventually, as the therapeutic value of writing emerged, blogging became something I looked forward to each week. In addition, I’m convinced that maintaining this blog has shaped my brain in beneficial ways, activating and strengthening neural pathways that would never have been otherwise.

TheBrainDamageDiaries has been many things: a self-help book, an owner’s manual, a mirror, a display case to share my victories, a discussion board for my observations, and most of all, an environment for growth. That growth has brought me to a point now where continued intense self-analysis isn’t necessary, and may instead be counter-productive, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. I’m in a good place now, at the intersection between the ending of one stage of life, and the start of another. This blog captures the stage I’ve just concluded, and I don’t intend to capture the next one in written form, at least not to the extent that I have for the past 73 weeks.

In my first post, I declared this blog to be a shift from Reverse to Drive, from surviving to thriving. In that sense, this blog always had a pending expiry date. Starting this blog initiated that shift, and ending this blog is completing that shift. On the one hand, it feels strange to conclude my blog here, especially since I didn’t expect to. On the other hand, it frees up the time, energy, and most importantly, the headspace to be myself to the fullest extent – at once entirely different from who I was, yet exactly the same person.

It would be very remiss of me not to acknowledge the support and encouragement I’ve received from everyone who has read my blog. Thank you for reading my ramblings and making my inaugural blogging experience a fruitful one.

Okay, time to go – I’ve got things to do!

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Organic & Free Range

I know, I’m four days late with this post or, as those glass-half-full folk might say, I’m three days early. Either way, I sat down the other day, when I was only a day late or so, with what I thought was an interesting observation, and it wasn’t until I was about four paragraphs into it that I realized it was rubbish. My motivation signalled defeat as my mental outline deflated slowly before finally collapsing in on itself, creating a vacuum that threatened to take the rest of my brain with it. Interestingly, this happens most often when I approach my blog with a premeditated idea of what to write. In most other applications, foresight and anticipation are rewarded with a speedy, efficient performance and better results. For whatever reason, when it comes to blogging, I do my best when I take a second to listen to myself, and then just start typing.

So here we go.

A lot has been going on the past week, hence the late/early post. I’ve been doing full days at the shop regularly for some time now, and though I enjoy my time at work, things on the home front seem to fall slightly by the wayside – items that need to be mailed out sit on my dining table still; that pile of clean clothes in the corner of my room continues to migrate from the floor to my bed, where it waits to be folded and put away, only to be demoted back to the floor each evening; and though the overall level of tidiness is tolerable, it’s not quite where I’d like it to be. There are many things that could be done, but I’ve been quite happy to give myself the evening off – for the past two weeks.

Amidst all the business and busyness, there has also been a lot of action going on between my ears, or, as I jokingly told a customer who asked where the noise on her bike was coming from, just below the helmet. Until very recently, I’ve been hyper-aware of every thought pattern regarding the events of this past year. I’ve reverse-engineered everything that has brought me to this point in a bid to look at each one objectively and honestly. Aware of my own tendencies and perhaps selfish motives, I’ve outlined strategies to process things in a healthy way, to move onward and upward in a trajectory laced heavily with logic and pragmatism. I’ve second-guessed my second guesses, raising the level of introspection exponentially, and any parts of my brain that aren’t damaged are most surely burnt out by now. I don’t do this because I like it, I just want to be healthy and whole again. But with this war waging in my head, I was shooting myself in the foot.

You see, the past couple of weeks have been so busy, that I was unable to take the time I usually reserve for reflection and self-analysis. Introspection is not the sole purpose of this downtime, but that is what my mind wanders to when I relax and give my brain a rest, and it seems like a good practice. With this part of my routine effectively removed, however, I was doing something that I haven’t done for a nearly a decade, something that I’ve been longing to do – I was just living. And just living is what I need to get back to.

The ability to just live is exactly that, an ability. When people have traumatic experiences, they lose that ability and it feels impossible to get back to just living. You can’t un-see the things you’ve seen, you can’t un-know the things you know, and you can’t forget the things you remember, no matter how badly you’d like to. We all need to continue living, of course, but how do we get back to living life? First, we need to recognize that the act of moving on does not invalidate or belittle the trauma we’ve faced. Then we need to decide how much of that experience we take with us in our day-to-day life. Some may take up a cause, a project that can reconcile their experiences with the world around them. Others may simply learn to compartmentalize, tending to the things that need tending, then shelving them until they require further attention. For myself, I need to be a little less involved in my recovery. I have to trust myself, that the person I am and the way I am can take it from here. It turns out that I need to get out of my way, because all the analyzing, plotting, and planning I was doing to ensure healthy and steady growth simply got in the way of something more valuable – authentic, organic, and wholesome recovery.

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The Avengers and Me

It was hot today. I went down to Fort Langley to hang out and relax, and there were so many people there milling about, checking out the shops, eating gelato, and enjoying the sun. I wasn’t out in the sun, however, I was sitting in the shade trying to read, but two whining dogs tied to a truck hitch nearby made that less than relaxing. Instead, I decided to sit out the hottest part of the day, and made my way to the movie theatre to watch The Avengers in 3D.


Generally, I’m not a fan of 3D movies. After a minute or two of the 3D sensation, the effect seems to wear off and everything falls back into 2D. It’s like my brain figures out what’s going on and decodes everything so that my eyes fail to create the illusion. It’s kind of a pity, really. Instead of a lasting 3D experience, I leave the theatre with bloodshot eyes. The only advantage of this particular 3D showing was that it was playing when I arrived at the theatre.

The Avengers gathers the heroes of it’s previous films (The Hulk, Thor, Ironman, Captain America and others) into what Roger Ebert calls, “the Westminster Dog Show of superheroes.” It is a spectacle, to be sure, but a well balanced one, playing to each character’s unique strengths and abilities. At this point of the Marvel saga, none of the heroes have secret identities anymore, but they still have alter egos. When they aren’t in their slim-fit uniforms and outfits, they are simply the people they are.

This is something I have been working through: who is Jay Brandsma? It’s not an easy question to answer, because I’m not fully convinced yet that I don’t have super powers. Powers or not, knowing who I am is the most elusive, yet vital piece to the life I’m putting together here. It would be nice if it were all laid out somewhere, like in a comic book – stories of how I started, what my powers and weaknesses are (every hero has a weakness), the demons from my past that haunt me (every hero has those too), and the values and personality that guide my actions and battles. If I could just get that info packaged up like that, maybe with some flashy pictures, I’d be set.

Instead, I have to gather this stuff together in real time – real slow time. This is a long, arduous, and delicate process, one that can easily be swayed by trauma, insecurity, and weakness. Fear, pain, and even honest intentions can alter my steps, shifting my aim so that instead of looking for who I am, I am looking to be liked. My philanthropic nature can quickly take the priority from helping myself along, to helping others along, and while every superhero is praised for this behaviour, it can prove damaging for us mere mortals who are piecing life together after trauma. Trust me – I’ve been there, done that, and burned out. Just as physical rehab was my sole focus in the first couple years post-accident, my emotional and psychological rehab must take top priority now. I must continue to discover who I am. Like the glowing Tesseract cube in the movie, a clear understanding of who I am will become an unlimited source of sustainable energy, the key to future growth and development.

So I keep working at it. The first page of my comic book is unwritten now, save for a few things I’ve scribbled in the top corner, a collection of assumed constants and continuations from earlier in life – sense of humour and wit, good at spelling and math, a palatable style and appearance, etc… The rest is up for grabs, and I pencil things in before scribing anything permanently. As the list grows, however, I see more of who I am and what I am about. I notice flashes of familiarity, glimpses where my nature acted naturally.

I recognize myself.

And I fly away.

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Working With Muted Results

Please respond to the following statements by choosing the answer that best reflects how you feel:

1) Strongly Disagree

2) Disagree

3) Somewhat Agree

4) Agree

5) Strongly Agree

This format seems to be the only way to assess psychological makeup because I was inundated with these types of questionnaires early on in my recovery. In order to understand what level I was functioning at, nothing could be taken for granted and a baseline had to be established. For this reason, I found the first questionnaire to be somewhat amusing, if not a little creepy, when faced with statements like these:

“Sometimes I feel like those around me are trying to steal my thoughts.”

“I know people are out to get me.”

“I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to kill myself.”

Rest assured I responded with 1) Strongly Disagree to all of the above. Aside from the occasional statement that seemed to come from way out in left field, these tests were useful for identifying issues and tracking changes. In addition to psychological and cognitive assessments, this style of testing was later used to help me find suitable employment.

I remember meeting with a specialist whose job it was to help me identify employment options that might mesh with my newly emerging cognitive status while providing some sense of fulfillment and success. After a bit of chit-chat, I was left alone to “respond to the following statements by choosing the answer that best reflected how I felt.” As you might expect, the statements here did not involve confessions to alien encounters or conspiracy theories. It was established that I was capable of work, now it was a matter of finding what kind. For that reason, I was responding to statements like:

I enjoy working with my hands.  3) Somewhat Agree

I prioritize easily and get tasks done quickly. 1) Strongly Disagree

I really enjoy delegating and organizing group tasks. 1) Strongly Disagree

Now, I really do enjoy working with my hands, but at the time of this particular assessment, I was in such a place that “enjoying” anything was a dramatic overstatement. Furthermore, I found the idea of working regularly so intimidating that every option was summarily ruled out. Amidst the host of Strongly Disagree’s and Disagree’s, an optimistic Somewhat Agree would stand alone. There may have been a couple Agree’s, but I know there were no Strongly Agree’s. A few weeks later, when I met with the specialist to discuss the results of the assessment, he explained my responses were so uniformly low that there was no conclusion. The fear, insecurity, ignorance, and apathy I was experiencing at the time had muted the results of the test. In the end, I had no leads and little motivation to find answers to the employment question.

History, as they say, is doomed to repeat itself, and though I have successfully gained fulfilling employment (with or without that assessment’s help) I find myself in a similar position. I alluded to this in an earlier post, saying the very idea of fun and enjoyment seems frivolous and self-indulgent. Thanks to feedback from that post, I’m warming up to the concept of doing something “just for me,” but choosing a pursuit presents a similar conundrum as that job skill assessment. The slurry of fear, insecurity, ignorance, and apathy continue to dampen motivation and, to a greater degree, initiation and execution. I can think of a few options, but when I gauge my excitement about any of them, the results are muted.

The initial school of thought here is that maybe I’m just a very apathetic dude now, that this development is just one more less-than-ideal repercussion of my brain damage. And if that’s the case, maybe I’ll never be excited about recreational pursuits, and would that be such a bad thing? Heck, I could quite easily and convincingly play this up as a positive thing – that I’m even keeled and super laid back. But then I remember two things: 1) Recreation and hobbies are not meaningless pursuits, rather they are valuable pieces in building a balanced life, and 2) In time, and entirely on my own, I found a job that is endlessly fulfilling and very, very enjoyable.

So what does that tell me? It tells me that, in time, when I’m ready and able and capable, I’ll find extracurricular activities that won’t seem like a chore to engage in, while providing a level of enjoyment and a fuller sense of balance to my life.

As I said, I’ve been considering this for some time and a few creative options have Strongly Agree written all over them, the foremost of which involves paint and canvas

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Monday at the bike shop, we had Mozart’s Sonata No.11 in A Major playing for the majority of the day. This is not unusual, as we always play classical music there, except for Saturdays when it becomes a mix of indie/folk and we realize once again that songs with lyrics are also enjoyable. After work, I had some errands to do, the most unfortunate of which was a haircut – the stylist understood I wanted the same style, just a little shorter, but then proceeded to give me a mullet – but I digress. While out and about getting things done, I continued to hear snippets of Sonata No. 11. I heard faint piano sequences in the grocery store, the parkade, the elevator, and even at home, as if my upstairs neighbours were listening to it. It was oddly comforting, like a personal soundtrack following me around.

I’ve had this happen before where the classical song of the day gets so ingrained in my head that I hear echoes of it hours after I’ve cashed out and closed shop. Perhaps this is the power of classical music, and there really is something to the whole Baby Mozart movement of exposing infants to classical music after all. Maybe classical music really does stimulate neural pathways to a greater degree than other types of music, and if that’s the case, I should play it while I’m sleeping too. I don’t know the science behind this phenomenon, but it seems similar to the afterimages you see after staring at an image, or the colourful bursts you see after looking at the sun – visual echoes, if you will.

Tuesday I made a spontaneous trip over to my parents’ place in Duncan, on Vancouver Island, for my brother’s birthday. Actually, I arranged to have the day off about a week earlier, but still, that’s spontaneous for me. Anyway, a friend and I took a late-morning ferry over so we could hang out in Victoria for a while, and it was during this time that I began to experience afterthoughts, mental echoes triggered by the familiar surroundings. You see, once we could afford to do so, Anya and I moved from a basement suite in Langley to Victoria, and it was there where we first carved out a life together. Some might say these afterthoughts were simply memories, and maybe they were, but it felt more intense, as if a smoldering thought pattern had suddenly lit up again.

I didn’t expect it to be, but as I told my friend that afternoon, my inaugural return to Victoria was an emotional one. On the one hand, it was really fun to drive around my old stomping grounds, see some old friends, and eat at one of my favourite haunts (Blue Fox on Fort Street never fails!). On the other hand, literally every memory I have of Victoria includes Anya, for in that epoch we did everything together. This may have been because I was too insecure to make friends on my own, or because we relied on each other too much, but it could just as easily have been because we were each the other’s favourite person to hang out with, and that we were each undeniably hilarious.

Driving around Tuesday afternoon, I had to fight to keep my composure, and I’m fighting the same battle here in Starbucks writing about it now. Fortunately for me (and everyone else here working on their laptops), I can control these afterthoughts better than the afterechoes of Mozart that ring through my mind. In a coldly efficient manner, I simply don’t allow my mind to go to that place. I perfected this skill years ago while coming to terms with my brain damage. At the time, fond memories of my pre-accident life threatened to rupture the fragile, brain-damaged life I had delicately pieced together, and to dwell on these mental vestiges was a painful and potentially dangerous move, just as staring at the sun will do more than just make colourful spots when you blink. So I turned away and focused on other things, like my recovery. To be sure, I know enough to recognize that this coping method traipses awfully close to denial, but I also know enough to recognize that, for a time, this is the best practice.

When life changes in traumatic and dramatic fashion, memories don’t have to become enemies, and afterthoughts don’t have to become actual afterthoughts. They just need time, some space, and enough consideration to change along with everything else.

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Still Prone to Sickness

I can feel a sinus infection coming on. My nose is at once runny and dry, my throat feels parched, and I have to cough slightly to clear it. This is what happens when I push it too hard for too long, when I don’t get enough sleep, and cram too many things into my days. I can get away with it for a short time, but the delayed consequences only trick me into overdoing it again and again. I don’t get sick often – colds typically pass me by, and even headaches are a rare occurrence – but when this sinus infection kicks in, it’s an uphill battle, one that took six weeks to get over last time.

This development, along with my mindset of the past week, had me thinking of another kind of “sick” that occurs not often, but regularly nonetheless. If you read between the lines of my last post, you can see that sometimes I just get sick of brain damage and its effect on my life. I am mindful of the checks and controls on my life now, and generally tolerate and respect them. I understand concessions must be made for my condition and experience has shown that erring on the cautious side is the best approach. However, this approach, left unchecked, becomes a self-fulfilling little hell and when I wake from the placid coma I unknowingly slipped into, I’m a little frustrated – and sick of it.

I was reminded of this note I originally posted on Facebook in 2007. The similarities between this note and last week’s blog post, I feel, highlight the permanency of some of things I contend with. I could have written this today, without changing a word, and it would be just as accurate and relevant.

Sick of it.

i’m sick of this brain-damage thing.

i’m sick of being different,
of needing so much.
i’m sick of being left out,
and reading about friends’ adventures.
i’m damn sick of being accommodated,
but even more sick that it’s necessary.

i’m sick of coping strategies,
all the things i must do before doing anything.
i’m sick of uni-tasking,
and focusing to get basic tasks done.
i’m sick of being overwhelmed by minor things,
and wondering if i could do better.

i’m sick of difficulty,
and fighting uphill battles.
i’m sick of emotions,
and not being able to trust them.
i’m sick of the discipline needed to stay sane,
and sick of how much i need it.

i’m sick of highlight memories,
of being past my prime.
i’m sick of second-guessing,
and never knowing for sure.
i’m sick of trying to explain,
and sick of not being understood.

i’m sick of referring to my “old self”,
that there’s even one to refer to.
i’m sick of this “new and unimproved self”,
the cheap knock-off i’m stuck with.
i’m sick of venting,
and sick of having so much to vent about.

i’m sick of trying so hard,
all day, everyday.
i’m sick of being in the dark,
and not knowing myself.
i’m sick of fighting,
but having no other option.

i’m sick of being anxious,
while never being excited.
i’m sick of naps,
and dreams of better times.
i’m sick of doing rehab exercises,
and sick of needing rehab exercises.

i’m sick of forgetting things,
and being inefficient.
i’m sick of cognitive fatigue,
and the stupid decisions i make.
i’m sick of being inferior,
of feeling like an idiot.

i’m sick of all the labels,
medical terms for issues i have.
i’m sick of alternatives,
and extra measures being taken.
i’m sick of routine,
and sick of suffering without it.

i’m sick of losing track,
of not knowing what happened when.
i’m sick of not coming back to things,
things i’ve forgotten entirely.
i’m sick of stimulus overload,
and that social events fall in that category.

i’m sick of suppressing reactions,
and toughing-out situations.
i’m sick of spinal issues,
and keeping proper posture.
i’m sick of being fragile,
mentally and physically.

i’m sick of what this does to me,
when i act like someone i’m not.
i’m sick of relationships suffering,
when i’m forced to look out for myself.
i’m sick of trying to make decisions,
and not making them at all.

i’m sick of being called courageous,
as if i have a choice.
i’m sick of persevering,
but never really enjoying.
i’m sick of being a ‘walking miracle’,
and wish my brain worked as well as my legs.

i’m sick of looking for the silver lining,
i’m sick of the whole damn cloud.
i’m sick of keeping hope,
yet i have to hope anyway

To be clear, I’m not particularly pissed off today because, frankly, staying upset requires more work than it’s worth, but I do want to give a little more face-time to the less palatable effects of living with brain damage. True, brain damage has distilled my perspective, making life simpler in many ways. Also true, however, is that making a life with brain damage has been a battle on many fronts. These opposing truths were brought to my attention this week and it’s a dynamic I want to consider more closely.

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